How does one describe the life-changing journey that is the Camino de Santiago? In short, pilgrims from all over the world hike hundreds of miles across northern Spain all to reach the beautiful Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It began as a pilgrimage to the remains of Apostle James, but over the 1,200 years since this tradition started, the solely religious journey has grown into a cultural and spiritual journey. Read along as I interview Camille Panier who shares stories from her Camino experience.
A well-dressed brunette glides through the café with a sheepish smile on her face.
“Sorry I’m late! I couldn’t find parking anywhere near here,” she says through a French accent. She politely orders a tea in Spanish with a quick smile to the waitress. She turns back toward me and tucks her long brown hair behind her ear, signaling her full attention.
Camille Panier, 25, lives and works in Ibiza, Spain as a French language and culture assistant. Originally from La Rochelle on the west coast of France, she studied French literature and then later earned a Master’s in teaching French as a foreign language. Since then, she’s taught French to children of all ages in different countries like Spain, Canada, and England for the past five years.
But our story with Camille starts before all of her worldly travels and language teaching. It starts with a young 17-year-old Camille and her decision to walk more than 500 miles across the rugged landscapes of northern Spain. Our conversation went like this:
Where did you first hear about the Camino?
“That would be from my uncle, actually. He walked it about 10 years ago and came back so wise. It really made me curious about the whole thing. When I did the Camino the first time, he started with me and left me to finish the rest on my own after two weeks.”
Tell me a little about 17-year-old Camille who has just decided to do the Camino.
“I didn’t really know myself before the Camino. I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to ask myself these questions along the way. I can say that I met myself along the way.”
How did you prepare yourself for the extremely long amounts of walking you would do?
“I didn’t prepare very much. Although it’s like doing a half marathon every day, I was OK because I played soccer and stayed active. The first week was really physically demanding because you’re in the mountains, so I tried to focus on the beauty the entire time to keep my mind off the pain.
“The second week, you reach a long stretch of desert. I never cried so much in my life. Not because of the pain, though. I was thinking so much, you know…going deep inside my thoughts. It was the best therapy ever, just walking with myself. I couldn’t be influenced by anything because there was literally nothing around. No trees, no beautiful views, nothing. You have to find your own motivation from within.”
I’ve heard there is a strong community among the pilgrims doing the Camino. Did you make friends along the way or was it more of a solitary experience?
“We helped each other like a family, so this connection is so much more intense than it would be if you met these people in normal circumstances. Everyone helps everyone because on the way, you can’t survive without the help from others.”
Did you adopt a different outlook on life in general while on the Camino? As in, did it change the way you look at the world at all?
“One of the unexpected lessons I learned was the importance of languages. I didn’t speak Spanish or English very well at the time, so I felt isolated at times. I realized that if I wanted to make connections with others from different parts of the world, I needed to learn more languages. I made a promise to myself that I would start learning more languages as soon as possible.
“I also realized what I need and don’t need. The bag I carried was my house, my life for one month. I had to select exactly what I needed to live, and all of it had to fit it this bag I carried with me. For example, during the Camino, I cut my toothbrush in half just to save a little more space. On the Camino, we have to be exactly precise, because you’re carrying everything you need. Sometimes in life we create more baggage than we actually need. It gave me this lesson that you don’t need so many things. [Realizing this,] that’s when I touched happiness, even through the pain.
“And lastly, I have a great story of a lesson I learned. One day I was totally fed up with the Camino. I was so tired. I walked 35 km that day. When I arrived at the hostel, it was full of tourists who just showed up on a tour bus earlier that day. I threw my bag down and immediately started to cry like a baby. A guy took my hand and said to me, “Come on. Keep walking. We’ll find a place in the next town.” And I got up, still crying and complaining the whole time. And suddenly, I looked down and noticed he had one leg and the other was fake. I felt so embarrassed that I was just complaining about myself and never thought to ask this guy how he was feeling. It taught me to always see the positive in things and to always move forward. I try to see my life the same way… If I could do the Camino, I can do whatever is ahead.”
Do you have any advice for someone interested in doing the Camino de Santiago?
“Oh, good question! First, I would suggest to really listen to your body, don’t go over your limit… Sometimes I tried to do more kilometers than I should have.
“Also, prepare the bag very well before.
“If possible, do the entire Camino. The mental process is most rewarding if you start from the beginning and walk until the end. You can see yourself evolving with each part.
“Oh, and do the Camino alone, you’ll be more open to meeting people when you’re alone. If you’re with friends, you might inadvertently group yourself off to meeting and talking to other people on the Camino.
“And finally, I recommend avoiding the busiest times like July and August because it was so crowded. Sometimes I had to sleep outside because the hostels were full.”
After our conversation, we both glanced at the time. She told me she had to run to Spanish class, and I thought back to when she told me about that promise she made to herself to learn more languages. This small instance helped me to better understand how significant the impact the Camino de Santiago holds to its pilgrims.
Have you ever heard of the Camino de Santiago, or have you walked the Camino before? Contact me on Facebook and tell us about your experiences!
*Feature image by Paolo Camero. Thanks, Paolo!!
How does one describe the life-changing journey that is the Camino de Santiago? In short, pilgrims from all over the world hike hundreds of miles across northern Spain all to reach the beautiful Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It began as a pilgrimage to the remains of Apostle James, but over the 1,200 years since this tradition started, the solely religious journey has grown into a cultural and spiritual adventure. Read along as I interview Cat Gaa and learn about her experience on the legendary Camino de Santiago.
Hi Cat, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me. First thing, can you tell me a little about yourself? Just the basics, your name, age, hometown, studies/profession, etc.
I’m Cat, a Chicagoan afincada in Seville since 2007. After studying journalism and international studies in the Midwest, I turned down a job in radio and turned up in Andalucía, where I’ve been teaching English, consulting about residency in Spain and blogging at Sunshine and Siestas. In August, I not only turned 30, but also married my long-term sevillano boyfriend.
Where did you hear about the Camino? (i.e. from a fellow traveler, a movie/book)
I first heard about the Camino when studying abroad in 2005. I chose a modern Spanish culture class, and our teacher literally decapitated Spain and wrote CAMINO on the board. We talked about the resurgence in popularity, and as someone looking to experience all of Spain, I knew I’d eventually come back to Spain and walk it.
Eight years later, I walked half of the Camino del Norte in July and August, arriving to Santiago by way of Avilés.
Once you decided to do the Camino, what made you choose the Camino del Norte? How does it differ from the popular Camino Francés?
The Camino del Norte runs along the northern coast, from Irún to Ribadeo, before dipping into Galicia. It’s a bit more rugged and thus posed more of a challenge. My fellow pilgrim and I were looking for a bit of solitude and a real chance to disconnect, and knowing that July and August were prime time on the Way, we wanted a quieter route.
I can’t speak to many of the differences, as I’ve only walked the Norte. However, it’s a lot less traversed, has fewer albergues and amenities and the stages, or etapas, tend to be a bit longer. You can imagine the pilgrim shock we experienced when the Norte links up with the Francés in Arzúa!
How did you prepare for the long hike ahead of you?
I didn’t do enough preparation, physically speaking. Seville’s climate is sweltering come springtime, and I was also finishing my master’s, so even my attempts to hike around town were nulos. The first few days on the trail were really tough on my body, but it’s amazing how fast it adapted! By the fifth day I felt stronger, faster and able to push myself further.
I did do a lot of research, though, and read books, blogs and forums. I found the Eroski guide (in Spanish) to be the most helpful, followed by the Cicerrone guide.
Could you tell me a little about who you were as a person when you started the Camino?
The Camino was a cap to an amazing year for me, professionally and personally. I’d done a lot of traveling, been promoted and had finished a master’s. It was wonderful to wake up every day and just put one foot in front of another – I’ve actually been considering walking during my holidays in March before settling down and starting a family. I consider it a time to be alone with my thoughts for conceivably the last time in many years!
The say the Camino calls, and I see arrows when I’m least looking, from where the Via de la Plata picks up near my house to even Austria and Portugal! It always makes me smile.
Did you have any fears, doubts, hopes or preconceived ideas as to what you would experience before you started?
I had very few doubts or fears before setting off from Avilés, given that I spoke Spanish, was familiar with Galicia and Asturias and had done a lot of research. My friend and I had two major goals: to walk the entire way into Santiago (some choose to take buses or taxis around, though you must walk the last 100km to receive the Compostela certificate), and to enjoy the experience. This meant breaking longer etapas down into two days or caving and paying more money to stop for lunch or visit some of the historical sites.
The biggest concerns we had while walking was not arriving soon enough to get a bed (we had to stay in small hotels or private dorms a few times) and snorers! Overall, it was a positive experience, and because I went into the 14-day hike with little more than the desire to walk, it all turned out to be more than I hoped for.
Can you talk a bit about the Camino community? Did you make friends along the way or was it more of a solitary experience for you?
I did a little bit of both. As the Camino del Norte has far less peregrinos, we ran into the same group of people during our two-week trek. I am an outgoing person by nature, so I talked to just about everyone we met and have stayed in touch with a few.
What really surprised me was how intrinsic the Camino was to those who lived in houses and towns along the way. Most everyone we met – albergue workers, people in bars, townspeople – had a deep respect for pilgrims and the route, so we always felt taken care of.
The Camino definitely gets under your skin, and it’s lovely to know that there’s a worldwide community out there.
What has the Camino taught you about yourself?
I did the pilgrimage for the adventure, of course, but it also as part of a grieving process. There were aches, pains, tears, blisters and everything in between while on the trail, and the cumulative experience brings up a lot of emotion.
I think the biggest thing the Camino taught me is how resilient I am, both mentally and physically.
Biggest lesson learned from your experiences during the Camino?
I learned a lot about myself on the Camino, but one that I still carry is to listen to my body! To eat when it’s hungry, stop when it needs rest, have an afternoon nap because I can.
And finally, do you have any advice for future peregrinos?
Doing your research is great, especially for packing tips and which route might be best for your needs, but go with an open mind and heart and let the experience live itself out. And when the Camino calls again, strap on your boots and go!
Cat Gaa left the skyscrapers of Chicago for the olive groves of Southern Spain in 2007. A teacher trainer and residency consultant in Seville, she completed half of the Camino del Norte in August 2013 and lives just one kilometer off the Vía de la Plata. She blogs at Sunshine and Siestas and runs COMO Consulting Spain.